Seeking to steer stimulus: Council wants more say on American Rescue Plan

  • LEE LOY

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Hawaii County has received its first installment of a $39 million federal stimulus package and County Council members are brimming with ideas on how to spend it.

Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz set the stage Tuesday, during a Planning Committee discussion on community development districts. Her vision, she said, is to get the CDP plans in place so the county can start investing in community infrastructure and economic development.

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“We have so much federal dollars coming our way,” Kierkiewicz said. “Get ready, guys. I’m ready to spend. Are you guys ready?”

Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy tried to move the ball forward Wednesday, with an amendment to earmark $570,769 for projects in eight county departments as the council formally accepted this year’s installment of $19.6 million from the American Rescue Plan.

“I wouldn’t describe this as a wish list but rather a unified voice by this body on how we want to direct these moneys,” Lee Loy said. “We can work on the language so we get what we want, everybody gets what they want. … I hear a lot of support.”

Puna Councilman Matt Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder added to the conversation with questions on how to bring community involvement into the spending plans.

“I want this to be more of a community effort to guide this decision-making,” he said, asking Finance Director Deanna Sako whether the council has the authority to direct spending of federal grants.

“Can the council move these funds to areas we see fit regardless of the administration’s desire?” he asked.

Sako threw a wet blanket on the council’s enthusiasm for spending the federal dollars.

“I’m not saying the council cannot direct, but when it comes to federal grants, there are so many restrictions,” Sako said.

When the much larger federal relief money came through last year, the County Council allocated $100,000 to each of its members to direct to relief projects in their districts. That’s not likely to happen this year.

Sako said the county is currently going through an audit of that previous spending, and “we’re having challenges with that.” She couldn’t be reached for more information by press-time Wednesday.

Sako said the U.S. Treasury Department has been sending out guidelines — sometimes twice weekly — clarifying how the funds can be spent. Some of the money is provided through a formula and there are specific requirements, she said.

“My biggest fear is we spend it on this and then it’s disallowed,” Sako said.

The administration’s breakdown of spending categories has some overlap with Lee Loy’s list, but at the urging of fellow council members, Lee Loy withdrew her amendment until she and Sako could refine the language, with the option of bringing it back on the bill’s final reading in two weeks.

Here’s how Bill 43 breaks down the spending:

Economic impacts. $7 million that includes $4 million for a jobs program and $3 million or agriculture.

Public health. $4 million for coronavirus testing, airport screening, staffing, disinfecting and personal protection.

Lost public sector revenue. $3.6 million, to be used to patch the budget for the Department of Water Supply and to pay for lifeguards at state beaches stricken from the state budget.

Broadband infrastructure. $3 million to bolster broadband in remote areas of Puna and Ka’u.

Water infrastructure. $2 million for exploration of new water wells.

Keith Okamoto, manager-chief engineer for the water department, said Wednesday no area has been identified yet for water well exploration but added he was “just super grateful” the department was in line for some funding. Well development would aligned with affordable housing efforts and other county priorities, he said.

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Like everyone else, the department “took a hit” during the pandemic shutdown, he said, especially with revenue losses when hotels ad restaurants used less water.

“We’re just so appreciative,” Okamoto said.

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